Women in News and Current Affairs Broadcasting (Communications Committee Report) — Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 3:47 pm on 8th September 2015.

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Photo of Lord Best Lord Best Chair, Communications Committee 3:47 pm, 8th September 2015

My Lords, I am delighted to open this debate on the report Women in News and Current Affairs Broadcasting from the House of Lords Select Committee on Communications, which I have the honour to chair. I am grateful to the Government, Ofcom and the broadcasters for their various responses to the report. I thank my fellow committee members for their input, and our clerk, Anna Murphy, our second clerk, Nicole Mason, our policy analyst, Helena Peacock, and our special advisers, Professor Lis Howell and Andrew Worthley—and in advance, I thank all those who will be speaking in this debate.

In essence, our report reflected the committee’s concern that progress in achieving the proportionate representation of women in broadcasting was losing momentum. In the population at large, women outnumber men—just. In a high-profile industry such as broadcasting, one would expect to see roughly equal numbers of men and women at all levels, both behind and in front of the camera and the microphone. However, we discovered that this was not the case. Although women make up almost half the BBC’s total workforce, they constitute only 37% of the leadership in network news and 35% of the leadership in global news. The most recent figures published by Ofcom, the regulator for broadcasting and telecommunications, showed that this was reflected in the industry more widely. Women make up 43% of the total industry workforce but only 36% of senior managers and 26% of board members. In terms of the expert commentators booked for news and current affairs programmes, men outnumbered women four to one, which we noted was even worse in sports programmes.

Of course, things have moved on a long way from the early years of broadcasting. Caroline Hodgson’s book, “For the Love of Radio 4”, recalls those all-male newsreaders required to wear dinner jackets, with the announcer, Charles Lister, being severely censured in the 1930s for wearing yellow socks. “Woman’s Hour” was first presented by a man, and the experiment of a female announcer, Sheila Borrett, in 1933, generated a mountain of complaints and was abandoned after just three months.

It took another 40 years before a permanent female news reader, Sheila Tracy, was appointed in 1974, and another 40 years before listeners to the “Today” programme were able to hear it fronted for the first time by four women: Mishal Husain, Sarah Montague, Corrie Corfield and Alison Mitchell. Indeed, the BBC told us that recently more than 41% of panellists on “Question Time” have been women.

However, the current position is by no means an entirely positive one. We were disturbed to receive testimony in private and on the record from women who had experienced sexist bullying and been held back by discriminatory behaviour. We did not buy the argument that men were usually better equipped to handle the rough and tumble of the newsroom or were likely to be free of family commitments to take on arduous reporting assignments. On every count, we noted brilliant examples of women performing all those roles with great distinction.

We felt it necessary to single out the BBC, not because we believed it was consistently lagging behind other broadcasters, but because of its special status and its funding by the public at large. We felt that the BBC should be exercising a leadership role in influencing not only the industry of which it is so important a part, but other employers and society as a whole. This led us to our central concern that moves toward the collection and monitoring of data on gender equality—the basis for holding a broadcaster to account—had, in recent years, gone into reverse.

Until 2011, Ofcom kept a close watch on broadcasters’ equality and diversity records through the Broadcast Training and Skills Regulator—later the Broadcast Equality & Training Regulator. In 2013, a draft Public Bodies (Modification of Functions of OFCOM) Order was laid before Parliament. Although it was subsequently withdrawn in 2014 due to views expressed in Parliament, the order sought among other things to remove from Ofcom the duty to promote development opportunities for training and equality of opportunity. As a result of the Government’s stated intention in this regard, and due to financial pressures, Ofcom closed down the BETR.

However, without the facts, transparency on progress or lack of it is hard to measure. The committee was not calling for quotas—for fixed proportions of men and women in each aspect of broadcasting—but we did advocate the setting, not just by the BBC but by all the public service broadcasters, of broad targets with regular analysis of the evidence of success in meeting those targets, and we recommended that the Government should once again ensure that Ofcom requires the necessary data and holds the BBC to account on this.

Eight months have passed since our report was published back in January and I can now report to the House on progress. We were pleased to note from the Government's response in March that they were,

“keen to see more media companies … being more open about how many women they employ and the jobs they do, and we”— the Government—

“have asked Ofcom what more can be done around data transparency for this sector and for Ofcom themselves as an employer and influencer”.

It would be most helpful if the noble Baroness the Minister provided an update on progress over recent months.

It is clear that there have been some significant steps in the direction we proposed by both broadcasters and by Ofcom. I have heard from the BBC of a number of steps it has taken since the publication of our report to address the issues we raised. I was pleased to learn that the BBC now has more women correspondents in Europe than men, and half the BBC news correspondents are female. Changes are also taking place at a local level, and the BBC has reached its goal of 50% of local radio breakfast shows with a female presenter either in a solo capacity or as part of a team. On fairer recruitment, BBC News has announced that it will always have gender-diverse recruitment panels for all jobs, and all hiring managers will have “unconscious bias” training to raise awareness of the potential for bias when making recruitment and promotion decisions. These and other developments are good news, and I hope and expect that the BBC will build on them.

Other broadcasters have also informed us that they are on the case. Earlier this year, Channel 4 launched a 360o Diversity Charter, which includes 30 commitments to improve diversity within the organisation and proactively across the media. It has a number of strands specifically aimed at improving gender balance. For example, it has set a target for a 50:50 gender split of C4 leaders by 2020; the current figure is 44%. ITV told us about its social partnership initiative, through which it works in partnership with independent producers to ensure that they deliver inclusive programming. ITV reports that in pitching and commissioning meetings, its suppliers say that they welcome this collaborative approach aimed at reflecting on-screen the diversity of modern Britain.

Although we had reservations about gender discrimination being regarded as comparable to discrimination on grounds of race, ethnicity or other minority characteristics, we applauded the Creative Diversity Network and the great work it has been doing to set up what is now Project Diamond, a new diversity monitoring initiative covering all the major broadcasters. It plans to launch this later in the year and to publish full equality data quarterly. Ofcom will now be working closely with the Creative Diversity Network and sits on the CDN’s education and training working group. It is also working with the Equality and Human Rights Commission on a diversity and equal opportunity toolkit specifically for broadcasters.

In the light of the steps now being taken by Ofcom, backed by the Government, the Creative Diversity Network, the BBC and other broadcasters, I conclude that the issues raised by your Lordships’ Communications Committee are getting serious attention. The danger that inequalities in the treatment of women in news and current affairs broadcasting will be ignored or sidelined has, at least for the moment, receded. But vigilance is needed, not just by Ofcom and the diversity network, but by everyone in this influential industry. Broadcasters set the tone for behaviour throughout society and we should all be watchful of their progress towards real gender equality, and be appreciative when they do better. I beg to move.